Mrs. Beeton is a widely-recognized name in Britain.
She was Isabella Mary Beeton, author of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a Victorian manual on how to properly run a household.
Directed at middle-class women, it was written in an era when not all young women had learned household skills from their mothers and needed help managing their new homes after marriage. Mrs. Beeton’s book had the information they needed.
The author was only twenty-one when she started writing the book. Initially, the book was published in parts in Mrs. Beeton’s husband’s publication The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine.
The first part appeared in 1859 and, two years later, towards the end of 1861, all the parts were assembled in a single volume under the name of The Book of Household Management.
The first edition had 44 chapters, though as the years passed, it was extended to 74 chapters spanning over 2,000 pages.
The book was a huge success: in the first year alone, sixty thousand copies were sold. Isabella died in 1865, but the book continued to sell well even after her death.
By 1868, the total number of books sold was around 2 million.
Unlike previous books of this kind, Mrs. Beeton’s book was highly structured and filled with illustrations.
This was the most novel thing about the book when it appeared. Isabella’s format became a model for modern cookbooks: the recipes were ordered alphabetically with ingredients listed at the top, including a calculated average time and cost of preparation.
Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management begins with chapters in which she writes about the general obligations of the “mistress”, the housekeeper, and the cook.
These are followed by chapters regarding the kitchen itself, how to choose the best products, and an introduction to cookery.
The next chapters, which consist of about 1,000 pages, are dedicated to English cooking, offering recipes for soups, meat, fish, puddings, pastries, and much more.
Table decorating, vegetarian cooking, creating menus, arranging meals, and cookery in other countries are some of the subjects treated in the subsequent chapters.
The recipes themselves were neither new nor revolutionary. Mrs. Beeton actually “borrowed” most of them from other books from that time like Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families, Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, and several others.
A significant number of recipes was sent by readers of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. She was advised in a letter from Henrietta English, a family friend: “Cookery is a Science that is only learnt by Long Experience and years of study which of course you have not had.
Therefore my advice would be compile a book from receipts from a Variety of the Best Books published on Cookery and Heaven knows there is a great variety for you to choose from.
” In addition to the letter, some parts of the original edition of the book demonstrate Mrs. Beeton’s strange attitudes towards food. She describes potatoes as “suspicious, many of them narcotic” and garlic as “offensive.”
She also recommends cooking pasta for an hour and forty-five minutes. Some cookbook authors would later describe her work as outright plagiarism.
The only entry in the book that was genuinely her own was a recipe for a soup that she served to the poor in the winter of 1858-1859.
Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was not simply a cookbook but also an elaborate domestic guide that provided advice on child care, servants, and promoted Victorian values – it was actually a complete guide to everyday middle-class life.
And although many of the recipes are not typically used anymore, the book is a useful source of information on the life and eating habits of the Victorian middle class.
Isabella Beeton was only 28 when she died in 1865 from complications after childbirth. Her husband Samuel had to sell the rights to all of his publications just a year after her death.
The rights to Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management went to Ward, Lock, and Tyler. The publishers have continued revisions of the book to this day.
The editions published in the years following Isabella Beeton’s death included an obituary notice, but it was later removed, allowing readers to imagine the figure of Mrs. Beeton herself giving them instructions on how to run their household.
In spite of the criticism and accusations of plagiarism and incompetence of the author, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management is considered one of the greatest cookbooks in Britain.
It helped to define the middle-class identity of the Victorian era. Isabella Beeton was later described as “the grandmother of modern domestic goddesses.”